Tools Of The Trade: WiFi access points

The first generation of wireless networking equipment was expensive, tricky to configure, slow, and not that reliable. But performance has improved and it is possible now to pick up basic equipment very cheaply.

The first generation of wireless networking equipment was expensive, tricky to configure, slow, and not that reliable. But performance has improved and it is possible now to pick up basic equipment very cheaply.

But for the best performance, it is worth paying a little more for a "g"-series set-up. The WiFi standard comes in two main versions in Europe: 802.11b, with a top speed of 11 megabytes per second, and 802.11g, which is capable of 54mbps. As long as you have a "g"-capable access point and card for your PC, the increase in network speeds should be quite dramatic.

There is a vast range of 802.11g-based hardware, with access points - the gadgets that link wireless-equipped PCs or handhelds to a network - selling for under £100.

Apple's Airport Express access point scores well for style. A small white box, it goes directly into a mains socket. Plug in an ethernet cable to the office network, or to a cable or DSL modem, and setting up a wireless network takes just a few minutes.

The Airport Express works with both Macs and PCs, and Apple's software makes setting everything up easy. The software also includes support for AirTunes. This allows the Airport Express unit to relay any music on a user's Mac or PC - as long as it is in Apple's iTunes software - and play it on a hifi.

AirTunes is a fun feature, but built-in support for printer sharing will be more useful in the office. The Airport Express can connect to a USB-equipped printer, and then any computer hooking up to the wireless network can print to it. The Airport Express is cheaper than a network card for many of the more expensive office printers.

Linksys' WAP54G wireless access point takes a slightly different approach. Linksys, owned by networking giant Cisco, provides a range of modular wired and wireless networking equipment. The routers, hubs and access points are designed to work together, and they can even be stacked into a compact tower.

The WAP54G should work with any office local-area network (LAN), as well as a cable modem or ethernet-based ADSL connection. Again, it was easy enough to set up: all its features can be controlled from a web browser, although Linksys does also supply (PC) set-up software. Configuration is perhaps a little more complicated than for the Airport Express, but the unit is designed with business networks in mind.

In use, both units offered noticeable speed improvements over 802.11b networks, and did not suffer from radio interference. Both were a little temperamental with some office network configurations, but this was easy enough to solve.

The Linksys unit has the edge for range, and will fit best into existing LANs. The Airport Express scores for its neat design and additional functions, and is the better choice for the home. But either would be a worthwhile upgrade to an existing wireless network, or a solid basis for a new one.

THE VERDICT

Apple Airport Express

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pros: size, design, features.

Cons: more expensive than alternatives.

Price £99.

Contact: www.apple.com/uk

Linksys WAP54G

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros: price, configuration options.

Cons: no extra features.

Price: around £40 + VAT.

Contact: www.linksys.com

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